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3 Eras of Shifting Business Focus: Provider, Consumer, Employee

Shifting Focus: How Doing Business Changes Over Time

At the CIPD HR Software Show in London last month, Alexander Farmer (head of customer success at Sage People) announced that it’s the age of the employee. That got me thinking about what age might be next, and what came before. Businesses haven’t always been employee-focused, because they’ve often focused on meeting the needs of the time and working in more localized economies. So what’s the history of our current focus on employees?

Shifting business timeline

Business as we know it really took off in the 1950s and 1960s, with the rise of mass-produced consumer goods and consumer markets connected by technology and globalization. I see three major shifts in focus since then.

Photo source: Flicker, 1950s Unlimited

1960s: Access – The Age of the Provider

I think of the 1960s as the age of exploding access and early consumer providers. The economy was rebounding, and more and more consumers were enjoying an increased ability to buy household goods. Consumers suddenly had access to an ever-expanding market of products designed to save time,  make their life easier, or enable them to work more efficiently.

At this point, products seemed to sell themselves: consumers clamored for new products, even without companies catering specifically to their needs. All a company like Whirlpool or Bell needed to do was announce the new features of their refrigerator or suggest that a device might save effort and consumers would flock to buy it.

1990s: Choice – The Age of the Consumer

By now, the consumer market had been around for a while, and customers became more choosy. With thousands of options in front of them and decades of experience navigating a world of advertising, customers began to want personalized experiences. Much like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs moves from physical to relational needs, consumer desires in this era followed a similar path.

Maslow's Hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Now that they had consumer goods, consumers wanted to be inspired, to feel a sense of autonomy and control. Most importantly, consumers wanted to develop relationships. When did we get the idea that the customer was always right? Well, it goes back to the turn of the 19th century and the rise of the department store, but in the 1990s it became more than an approach to stocking goods–it became a focus of the business-consumer relationship.

This era saw a turn to customer-centric business practices, and in the early 1990s, businesses began to focus on “customer intimacy.” A 1993 Harvard Business Review article defined customer intimacy as “segmenting and targeting markets precisely and then tailoring offerings to match exactly the demands of those niches,” and praised companies like Home Depot and Nordstrom for excelling at this practice. Home Depot’s mid-1990s slogan, “You can do it. We can help.” and their practice of personalized in-store help is customer intimacy embodied.

2010s and beyond: Experience – The Age of the Employee

But what if the customer isn’t always right–or isn’t the whole story? What if customers want more from companies than just products? More and more, we’re learning that customers are motivated by the purpose of a company. (We are motivated by similar factors in our own work as well, according to Dan Pink, so it makes sense that we’re looking for companies who give their employees autonomy and purpose.) We seek out companies who treat their employees ethically and pay them a fair wage, who have a mission we believe in, or who have an attractive culture. Think about why we love Patagonia or have serious qualms about Amazon. Customers care about more than the products these retailers sell–increasingly, we care about the issues and values businesses stand for, and those things drive our purchasing habits.

And the employees of a business are the key to its success. They’re usually the ones forming relationships with customers, and can be huge advocates for a product or service. Now, businesses are starting to connect the dots between employees’ experience and the business’s success. This is why we’re seeing an increasing number of employee engagement platforms such as Peakon, Officevibe, and Sage.

Happy, driven, empowered employees generally perform better and are more productive, which leads to more sales and a healthier company overall. In his book The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni writes that a healthy company–one that has a purpose, a culture, and engages its employees–will always win over a company driven only by numbers.

In this day and age, retaining employees is the key to success. Here at Venga, we believe that in addition to fair wages, good benefits, and a purpose they can believe in, employees want to work at companies that communicate with them in their own language. Take a look at our resources to see how we can help you use language create a healthy company.

Contact us to find out how.

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